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St. Louis officials hope new task force will get violence under control

William Woods, the special agent in charge of the St. Louis office of the FBI, announces the Mission SAVE task force with chief Sam Dotson (L) and Mayor Francis Slay (R) Flanked by St. Louis Metropolitan Police chief Sam Dotson.
FIle photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI

One hundred five people have been killed in St. Louis so far this year, putting the city on pace for nearly 200 homicides in 2015. Many more than that have been shot or put in danger of being shot.

Now, city officials are looking to a new local-federal task force to slow the pace of violence in the city.

The effort is know as Mission SAVE, or "Strike Against Violence Early." It's a collaboration among the St. Louis County and Metropolitan police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Prosecutors from the Eastern District of Missouri, the city and the county are also involved.

William Woods, the special agent in charge of the FBI's St. Louis office, acknowledged that this is not the first time these groups have formed a task force to look at crime in St. Louis. 

"What's different about this initiative is the unprecedented collaboration in terms of size, scope and consistency," Woods said. "This collaboration is among law enforcement, and is also a collaboration between law enforcement and the community. The word 'mission' denotes our long-term commitment." 

How Mission SAVE will work  

The task force will feature a minimum of 50 people from the five agencies. They'll all work from a centralized location, which is set to open sometime in the fall, targeting the most violent individuals as well as working on longer-term drug investigations.

"Most crime is driven around money, and money in this case is driven by the illegal sale of illicit drugs and weapons," Woods said. "We have a goal of dismantling the drug trafficking organizations."

But the task force will also include an extensive community outreach component.

"We have to do something about the root causes of crime," said St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce. "We can't just keep locking people up and continue on that treadmill. We have to stem this problem where it starts, and that's in the community."

The group is modeling its outreach on Kansas City's No Violence Alliance, which includes what are called call-ins. Individuals that intelligence says are the most likely to commit or be a victim of a homicide are brought together in a room with law enforcement officials and social service agencies, and essentially told that everyone there wants them to survive the summer. They are then directed to the service providers to get help with things like job training or drug addiction. Joyce said Mission SAVE's first call-in will take place at the end of the summer.

"Reducing violence takes an all-hands-on-deck approach -- a strong effective team with a message for criminals to beware, and also with the compassion to be able to look at a situation and find ways to divert those who need some extra help in addressing some issues they may be having in their life," said Mayor Francis Slay. His office pledged in May to unveil his own comprehensive crime-fighting strategy.

The task force has been active since late December, making 79 arrests, and getting 108 guns and 67 kilos of drugs off the street. The homicide numbers are raising questions about whether the force will be effective, but St. Louis Metropolitan Police chief Sam Dotson said it's important to consider what was interrupted

"I don’t know what I don’t know, but I’m fearful if we hadn’t done something over the past six months, what we would be looking at," he said.

The department has also beefed up its homicide investigations unit to boost the city's clearance rate (the number of people arrested for crimes), which is hovering around 30 percent.

Political reaction

Both Slay and county executive Steve Stenger are on board with Mission SAVE. The county pledged $800,000 in start-up funds to the task force.

Other reaction was a bit more muted. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, who represents the eastern half of the city, attended Monday's announcement, and said crime will go down if the agencies follow through on their promises.

"I'm confident that will happen," she said. "One murder impacts the whole region, and when you have six or seven in one day, that is a state of emergency. And the people here in the St. Louis area, meaning the leaders, truly understand that we have to do something now rather than later."

The announcement came as the city was reeling from a violent weekend when at least seven people were killed and 10 others shot. Aldermen took to Twitter demanding a comprehensive strategy.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Green said she had seen a short overview of Mission SAVE, and called its implementation a positive move. But she said it should not have taken as long as it did to implement a comprehensive strategy.

"We would always like government to function a little faster than it does," she said.

Spencer's 20th Ward includes Dutchtown, which has seen some of the highest concentrations of violent crime this year. She said that while she was glad to see a plan, she said residents should have been involved in developing the strategy.

"Residents need to be able to feel confident in the plan," she said. "Those who have developed it need to have been living in the most violent areas."

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.